GiveDirectly: Tech Narcissism in Africa? Or, What?

Screen Shot 2015-04-05 at 3.50.01 PMNew Orleans         I read a column in the New York Times by the spectacularly unreliable source, Nicholas Kristoff,  that was flatly arguing in his classic neo-liberal mindless hucksterism that rather than try to change the world, perhaps it was better to simply make money and give more away.  Despite the absurdity of his argument on its face, which should probably just begin and end with the point that in the vastness of wealth inequality today, the chances that any but the rarest would dedicate their lives to making “the sacrifice” to achieve wealth solely in order to give it away, or that simply giving money away eliminates the need to understand that the struggle against injustice, the drive to build power to create change, and the role of politics, culture, community, and other issues are not simply solved anonymously sending off a blank check, I figured “what the heck,” let’s look at one of these things called GiveDirectly  and see what’s up.

GiveDirectly appealed because it seemed simple.  From the description Kristoff gave it seemed like a direct transfer of money from donors to recipients.   You know, the way welfare was supposed to work although it never really worked exactly that way in the good old days before President Clinton and the gang changed “welfare as we know it.”

Going to the website though was bizarre.   Yes, it was about a direct transfer of money to poor people in Kenya largely and perhaps Uganda.  Otherwise it was mainly tech-speak.  The organizers thought it was important to let you know that some academics had studied the issue and there were positive outcomes for families in receiving money, but any welfare recipient in the USA could have told any of these donors for decades that their big problems in life were too much month and not enough money.  In fact, our whole argument in the National Welfare Rights Organization was “more money now” and “adequate income now.”  GiveDirectly  people also thought it was important for you to know that they sliced very little out of the pie in identifying who was poor through the marvel of determining that if you had a thatched hut in Kenya, therefore you were poor, and that they were bears on the issue of corruption.

It became clear in reading one section of the website after another that GiveDirectly  was in fact the anti-charity.  Their best arguments and their central emphasis was the fact that they wanted to change international philanthropy and make it less about projects and more about metrics.  Though it was unclear what they were measuring other than the efficiency in which they were transmitting the money.  There was something missing in the website and the whole concept.  It was Save the Children without pictures of children.  There were no people anywhere. There were graphs.  There were charts.  There were no people, and though there were plenty of metrics about the donations, there were none that offered any clue about the outcomes for the people.

The whole operation seemed deaf to anything but their own complaints as givers about giving.  They made the outstanding point that modern technology had reduced the cost and mechanism for money transfers to pennies, but it never would have occurred to them to support something like ACORN’s campaign for Remittance Justice which would redirect literally billions now being predatorily siphoned off by banks and money transfer organizations and allowing workers and relatives to move money to their families throughout the world.

From their numbers they seem to have been in business for about five years and by organizing with this negative, “disrupt philanthropy” outreach they had zoomed up to  $17 million in contributions with their “don’t get dirty, just give money” approach.  Perhaps on their $1000 per year strategy they will argue in the future that in one year they made it easier for 15,000 families or so.  Of course change the cost of remittances and you can redirect $30 billion that families are already trying to give each other, but simply being robbed on the way, and on their math that would benefit 30 million or so.  Families will continue to give to families. It is unclear from their argument whether the rich techie crowd that seems enamored of this approach will keep giving for the rest of their lives for even these families.

What’s the point of all of this?  Why bother?  Why don’t they simply walk out in the street and toss up hundred dollar bills?  Probably too much contact with real people and real problems.

The problem of poverty can be solved with money, but not just with money.  Put that on a website.  Discuss in Silicon Valley and Wall Street.

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Of Course Corporate Contributions are About Buying Access and Influence

moneyMemphis   It’s interesting to watch the Washington two-step ignited by Senator Elizabeth Warren’s pushback against outside groups trying to mobilize against her progressive advocacy and the by catch of other fish squirming in her net.   To refresh your memory when the Third Way, a group of more conservative sometime Democrats, pushed against her more populist proposals to expand Social Security, she not only bucked back, but demanded disclosures from banks about where their corporate contributions were going, including to such outfits.  In some collateral damage others in turn then cast aspersions at President Obama’s naming of John Podesta, a former Clinton chief-of-staff and liberal DC playmaker, insinuating that his work with the progressive think tank, the Center for American Progress, and his large cardex of corporate donors might influence his work in the White House.  Now, the current President of CAP, Neera Tanden, has released the list of their corporate donors for the first time, saying none of them impact their work.

            The Center for American Progress has done some good work, and did so under Podesta, and for my part, I liked him and his work in all the dealings I have ever had with him.  He is a calm and battletested operator who doesn’t wilt, and that’s good for the President, the White House, and it has had value, whether his advice was taken or not, to ACORN in our day and no doubt to others.   No shrinking violet, he had never released his list of donors and probably never lost a moment’s sleep about it, no matter what anyone might have thought about it, one way or another.   I’m good with that.   He let the chips fall where they may when he ran CAP, and played the hand well and according to his own lights.

            I don’t know Neera Tanden.  She just released their donor list which has few surprises among  big banks, tech, education, and health companies, but does have some when it comes to foreign governments like Taiwan and Japan showing up in the roster, though it’s good to see they are interested in “American progress.”   Tanden of course says,

“… the donations have no impact on its work. ‘This is an institution that tries to find the right answers,’ she said in an interview on Thursday. ‘It does not answer to the agenda of any of its individual supporters or corporations.’”

As far as the two-step goes, she’s probably right.   All of their donors are too smart and shrewd to try and directly “impact” their reports or impose their “agenda,” but so what, that’s not why they are giving anyway.  Their donations are about the coin of the lobbying realm:  influence and access.  To the degree CAP and the hundreds of others smaller, lefter, righter, or whatevers are operating in the space in DC that is trying to make public policy, then access and influence, even if on others or in general, rather than any specific reports, is the coin of the realm.  Anyone would be naïve to think otherwise, no matter how the points are parsed and the story is spun.

The donors, especially the big corporations, have their own experts and outside consultants to crank out reports for them.  They don’t need these outfits to do that work, though sometimes it is advantageous if the work is done by others with more legitimacy and aligns with your interests of course.  

But, more than that, the influence and access coming from the corporations is always an A/E card without a limit in the politics of Washington.   Information is useful and so is knowing people.  Being at the table as policy alternatives are debated and offering your “perspective” becomes part of the calculus.   Meeting and “exploring” positions becomes part of the shaping that produces the final position.  Is this corrupt?  Of course not.  Is this normal and human?  Of course.  Is it pristine, pure, independent, and objective?  No not that either, but it is part of how the sausage is made.

These outfits and their relationships and so-called partnerships are about their corporate and private interests and not the public interest though, and in the transactional world of DC politics and policy, this is part of the grist for the mill.  The biggest bank account in DC may be the “favors” bank, and the “ask” always comes, and the fact that it doesn’t hurt to say “yes,” doesn’t mean that it had no value, impact, or influence.

That’s just the reality.  No shaming or finger pointing involved.  Senator Warren is right to want to know.   Even the Third Way is right to want to know all of the donors.   The rest of us need to know that somewhere all of their fingerprints are on the final reports and policy, no matter how light to the touch, not because it’s good or bad at this point, but simply because that’s the way it is in Washington, and to think otherwise is simply naïve or with all due respect to Ms. Tanden, simply beside the point.

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